All hail “All Hail King Julien,” to take the easy (though not critically disingenuous) way in to discussing the latest spinoff from DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar” franchise.
Following the summer bow of “Turbo F.A.S.T.,” it’s also the second fruit of the studio’s big distribution deal with Netflix, where five episodes debuted Friday. (The previous DreamWorks Animation TV spinoffs “The Penguins of Madagascar,” “Monsters vs. Aliens” and “Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness” were channeled through Nickelodeon; “DreamWorks Dragons,” which ran originally on the Cartoon Network, will move to Netflix in 2015.)
As with “Penguins,” in which the self-approving, life-loving, party-forward lemur King Julien (Danny Jacobs, taking over in the TV series from Sacha Baron Cohen) was also a character, the series reminds us of the comic value of secondary players, free from the strictures that bind the headlining heroes and villains. (Indeed, Julien was reportedly a “two-line” part until an auditioning Baron Cohen improvised eight minutes of dialogue in an Indian accent – hence the Indian accent.)
The Netflix series is a prequel, set at the time of Prince Julien’s ascension to the lemur throne after his Uncle King Julien (Henry Winkler, continuing his productive late period) suddenly abdicates. In fact, he is throwing his nephew into the jaws of what he believes is a fatal prophecy, and planning to take back the crown after that dust settles.
As in the film, the lemurs are threatened by the fossa – the island’s predatory cats. Although it’s common enough in animated feature films, this is the rare short-form cartoon series in which the threat of violent death underlies the action.
It also makes for philosophy. Under Julien’s uncle, the lemurs live in a state of soul-crushing silence, so as not to become targets; but once Julien takes over, he fires up the boom box, cranks up the bass and lets the rave begin.
“We’re a bunch of lemurs in the jungle, baby,” he tells his subjects in a perilous moment. “There’s nothing here that doesn’t want to eat us, to poison us, or to swallow us up in gooey black pits of deathliness. ... If there may not be a tomorrow, then we’ve got to live extra big today.”
Repeating from the film and “Penguins” are Mort, a kind of Keane-eyed fanboy played by Andy Richter with a hint of Peter Lorre; and Maurice (Kevin Michael Richardson) as Julien’s wearied but supportive chamberlain. India de Beaufort joins them as Clover, his paranoid head of security.
Visually, the series is, as you would expect, a budget version of big-screen CGI. This is not a problem – it’s a cartoon, after all, and it succeeds on matters of style, script, timing and performance, not the number of individual hairs rendered in a patch of fur. And “Julien” delivers on all the important accounts.